Chestnut Meadows highlights Southborough’s continued work on (and struggle with) Open Space issues

Above: Open Space Preservation Commission’s Chair explains why narrow strips of Open Space around Chestnut Meadow would offer no value to the Town. (image from Southborough Access Media video)

Discussions at this week’s Planning Board meeting highlighted the Town’s ongoing work handling Open Space parcels. It also drew attention to issues that aren’t fully resolved.

As you may know, if developers wish to build a subdivision in Southborough, they need to set aside 10% of the land as Open Space. You may not know that there are two ways to do that.* And, based on this week’s discussion, the value to the Town of either can sometimes be questionable.

In recent years, developers have tended to use “option B” – granting the Open Space in small parcels to be preserved in perpetuity. Often these are strips of land surrounding the development. 

On Monday night, the Chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission explained that when poorly placed, narrow strips are worthless to the Town.

That decision was based on findings from a multi-year Open Space Deed Research project recently completed by Mass Audubon. Purportedly Mass Audubon summed up their opinion on small grass strips with “Why bother?”. Gillespie explained:

They’re impossible to monitor, enforce [and] they’re a hardship to the property owners.

“Option A”, is to set aside a parcel as a park. But that land is only preserved for three years.

According to Planning Chair Don Morris, that was used many times in the 80’s. The bylaw allows the Town those years to pursue buying the parcel. Historically, the Town never pursued purchasing what amounted to one lot of a subdivision. Therefore, as far as Morris could remember, they all reverted back to developers. [Editor’s Note: That was prior to voters’ adoption of the Community Preservation Act that helps fund preservation of open space and recreation projects.]

The issues were highlighted this week in a continued hearing on Chestnut Meadow.

The plan for the proposed 12-house subdivision includes using the required 25 foot setback from wetlands as part of the Open Space. Other space would be made up of 10 foot strips. Freddie Gillespie, Chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission, told Planning that OSPC opposed the developer’s plan at their last meeting.

Gillespie acknowledged that the developer had increased the Open Space since OSPC voted. So, she could only speak on changes as an individual. But, she explained the commission’s opposition to the kinds of strips still included in the plan. And she pointed out that since it’s a hay field the Open Space wouldn’t be designated by shrubs or trees. She predicted that the strips would just end up as “lawn with fertilizer and chemicals”.**

The OSPC Chair said that for the first time since she’s been on OSPC, the commission voted to to recommend option A. They asked for 1.574 acres of upland to be made a park for 3 years. 

Gillespie pitched that preserving a parcel for short-term was better than no value in perpetuity. She also said the commission was willing to sit down with the developer on alternative plans.

Representing the developer (Habitech Homes), George Connors of Connorstone Engineering indicated a park like OSPC was asking for wasn’t a viable option. He claimed they had been working hard on the Open Space for two years, and kept adding to it. He said it was now up to 19%.

Earlier in the hearing, member Jesse Stein pushed the developer to work with Open Space before the next meeting. He referenced the land as a priority space and reminded,

Open Space and land preservation are extremely important to the residents of Southborough.

Connors responded he would try but he didn’t foresee coming to agreement. The Planning Board appeared to be split on how to handle an Open Space disagreement.

Morris asked Connor several questions about the legal requirements for timing a 3 year plot and mused that it would end with no Open Space. But, he also questioned what they would do with strips of Open Space that OSPC says are more trouble than they are worth.

Gillespie and Planning discussed Open Space issues including how restrictions should be recorded on plans and deeds. Connor expressed frustration that some of the discussions between the boards were “going round and round and round” during the hearings. He pushed for Planning and Open Space to work out their issues offline.

Member Phil Jenks pointed out that Planning and Open Space had a long history of subcommittees and going round on efforts to resolve issues. He suggested that they could try again.

But Jenks’ bottom line for a project was that if the developer was “meeting the regulations, that’s it.” And if officials don’t like the regulations, they should change them.

Planning Member Meme Luttrell (formerly a member of Open Space) countered that the Town went through the multi-year effort on the deed project for recommendations. She questioned why they wouldn’t follow those recommendations.

Connors said he would sit down with Open Space before the next hearing. The hearing was continued to August 21 at 7:00 pm.

Later in the meeting, Town Planner Karina Quinn updated the board and public on their latest contract with Mass Audubon. The agency will be inspecting Open Space parcels for the Town. First, Planning needs to finalize a standard form. It will then be pilot tested on some parcels, and brought back to a Planning Board meeting.

*Under the Town Code’s defining of subdivision of land design standards:

Before approval of a plan, the Planning Board may require either of the following:

The plan to show a park or parks, suitably located in the Board’s opinion for playground or recreation purposes or to provide light and air. The Planning Board may require by appropriate endorsement on the plan that no building be erected upon such park or parks without its approval for a period of three years. Each area reserved for such purposes shall be of suitable size, dimension, topography and natural character. The Board may require that the areas so reserved shall be located so as to be used in conjunction with similar areas of adjoining or potential subdivisions and to serve adequately all parts of the subdivision, as approved by the Planning Board. Unless otherwise specified by the Board, the total area to be reserved for park and playground purposes shall be not less than 10% of the gross area of the subdivision. The land so reserved shall not be a wetland and shall not be stripped or altered, except as may be approved by the Board to ensure suitability for the purposes intended.

Certain portions of each lot, collectively equal to no less than 10% of the gross area of the subdivision, shall be set aside under covenant, not to be developed and to remain as open space in its natural state in perpetuity.

**Gillespie later referred to the Town’s past experience with other grass Open Space strips and reminded the board of controversial issues with homeowners in the Barn Hollow development who landscaped theirs.

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